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On the Road, Again: ‘Route One/USA’ Revisits 1980s America

Robert Kramer (1939-99), an American filmmaker more highly regarded in his adopted country of France than at home, made his four-hour magnum opus, “Route One/USA,” as a tourist in his native land. Now the newly restored film is having its first extended run in three decades, streaming from Film at Lincoln Center, with a wider virtual release to follow. It is, as they say, a trip.

Named for the old interstate that runs along the East Coast, “Route One” is an oblique, lightly fictionalized account of a journey from the Canadian border in Maine to the Florida Keys taken in 1988 by the unseen filmmaker in the company of another returning expatriate known as Doc (Paul McIsaac, a 1960s activist like Kramer as well as a presence in previous Kramer films), who had been in Africa.

There is a venerable tradition of such movies — including “Sullivan’s Travels,” “Easy Rider” and “Queen & Slim” — but the French critic Serge Daney praised “Route One” as “the opposite of a road movie.” Drama is subsumed in observation. At once free-flowing and fragmented, Kramer’s travelogue alternates its focus between great historic places and obscure pit stops. Its true precursor is Robert Frank’s seminal photographic collection, “The Americans.”

Monuments abound. The most bizarre is St. Augustine’s Tragedy in U.S. History Museum, a repository for death cars and torture implements. America is haunted and oblivious. The filmmakers mark Halloween in Salem with a coven of witches and find another metaphor in the local factory where Parker Brothers manufactures its Monopoly game. One of the oddest juxtapositions has Pat Robertson, out running for president, singing a chorus of the Woody Guthrie anthem “This Land” — after which Kramer cuts to a tattoo parlor.

The movie’s subjects include eccentrics, isolatoes and refugees; there are encounters with Penobscot Indians in Maine and Haitian immigrants in Miami; and Kramer ventures into the grim cityscapes of Bridgeport, Conn., and the Bronx, where the plague du jour is H.I.V. A sequence on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington is juxtaposed with the travails of a family who recently escaped the civil war in El Salvador.

Departing Washington, Kramer and Doc head south to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where Doc had once been stationed. He bails abruptly, leaving Kramer to navigate the journey’s Southern leg solo (save for the presence of an invisible crew). When Doc next shows up, in Miami, he’s like one of the people Kramer has discovered along the way — he has accepted a $20,000 per year job in a clinic, treating AIDS patients and finding love with a worldly luncheonette waitress.

Doc can be a loquacious presence, but “Route One” never explains itself. One thing simply follows another. A spare, modernist score, heavy on solo cello, adds to the bemusement. Reviewing the movie in 1990, the New York Times critic Caryn James called it “an endlessly fascinating portrait of late-1980s attitudes toward religion, race and history.” Yet “Route One” hardly seems a period piece. Most of it could have been filmed last year.

Indeed, the movie has the spooky feel of forecasting an imminent future — complete with the occasional reference to living in the “last days.”

Route One/USA

Available for streaming at Film at Lincoln Center, starting Aug. 21; filmlinc.org.

Rewind is an occasional column covering revived, restored and rediscovered movies.

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